British Prime Minister David Cameron will deliver a speech in London on Jan. 23, during which he will discuss the future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. Excerpts leaked to the media suggest that harsh EU criticism will figure prominently in the speech, a suggestion in keeping with Cameron’s recent statements about the bloc. But more important, the excerpts signal an unprecedented policy departure: renegotiating the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union. London has negotiated exemptions from some EU policies in the past, even gaining some concessions from Brussels in the process; this time, it is trying to become less integrated with the bloc altogether.
Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum after 2015 on the United Kingdom’s role in Europe. He has also said he would reclaim powers London surrendered to the European Union. While they no doubt reflect similar anxieties across the Continent, such statements are anathema to the European project, and by making them, Cameron could be setting a precedent that could further undermine the European Union.
Cameron’s strategy partly is a reaction to British domestic politics. There is a faction within the ruling Conservative Party that believes the country should abandon the European Union entirely. It was this faction that pressed Cameron to call a referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Some party members also fear that the United Kingdom Independence Party, the country’s traditionally euroskeptic party, is gaining ground in the country.
Such fears may be well founded. According to various opinion polls, roughly 8-14 percent of the country supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, even though it received only 3.1 percent of the popular vote in the 2010 elections. These levels of support make the party a serious contender with the Liberal Democrats as the United Kingdom’s third-largest party (after the Labour Party and the Conservative Party). Some polls show that the United Kingdom Independence Party already is the third-most popular party, while others suggest it has poached members from the Conservative Party, a worrying trend ahead of elections for the European Parliament in 2014 and general elections in 2015.
Its growing popularity can be attributed to other factors. Beyond its anti-EU rhetoric, the United Kingdom Independence Party is gaining strength as an anti-establishment voice in the country, supported by those disappointed with mainstream British parties. Similar situations are developing elsewhere in Europe, where the ongoing crisis has weakened the traditional political elite.
The debate over the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union is also causing friction with the Conservatives’ junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has repeatedly criticized the Conservatives’ push for a referendum, arguing that the proposal is creating uncertainty in the country and by extension threatening economic growth and job creation. Several of the country’s top businessmen share this belief. On Jan. 9, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, London Stock Exchange head Chris Gibson-Smith and eight other business leaders published a letter in the Financial Times criticizing Cameron’s plan to renegotiate EU membership terms.
British citizens likewise are conflicted on the subject. In general, polls have shown that a slight majority of Britons favor leaving the European Union, but recent surveys found that opinion was evenly split. Conservative Party voters particularly support an EU withdrawal.
Given the issue’s sensitivity, Cameron has sought to please everyone. He said there would be a referendum, but it would entail the United Kingdom’s position in the European Union, not British membership. Despite his criticisms of the bloc, Cameron has said he does not want to leave the European Union outright; rather, he wants to repatriate from Brussels as many powers as possible. Cameron believes the United Kingdom still needs direct access to Europe’s common market but that London should regain power regarding such issues as employment legislation and social and judicial affairs. Most important, the referendum would take place after the general elections of 2015.
London’s Costs of Membership
London also believes that the United Kingdom has surrendered too much of its national sovereignty to supranational EU institutions. The United Kingdom is a net contributor to the European Union, and London feels that the costs of membership exceed the benefits. The Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes agricultural sectors in continental Europe, does not really benefit the United Kingdom, and the Common Fisheries Policy has forced the United Kingdom to share its fishing waters with other EU member states.
Yet the United Kingdom is a strong defender of the single market. Roughly half of its exports end up in the European Union, and half of its imports come from the European Union. While the United States is the United Kingdom’s single most important export destination, four of its five top export destinations are eurozone countries: Germany, the Netherlands, France and Ireland. Germany is also the source of about 12.6 percent of all British imports.
Some critics suggest that the United Kingdom could leave the European Union but remain a part of the European Economic Area, the trade agreement that includes non-EU members, such as Iceland and Norway. However, the country would still be required to make financial contributions to continental Europe and adapt its legal order to EU standards, but it would not have a vote in EU decisions. According to Cameron, the United Kingdom must be part of the common market and have a say in policymaking.
The issue points to the United Kingdom’s grand strategy. Despite an alliance with the United States, the United Kingdom is essentially a European power, and it cannot afford to be excluded from Continental affairs. Throughout history, London’s foremost concern has been the emergence of a single European power that could threaten the British Isles politically, economically or militarily. Maintaining the balance of power in the Continent — especially one in which London has some degree of influence — is a strategic imperative for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom’s Strategic Dilemma
The United Kingdom’s push to renegotiate its status in the European Union threatens the European project. In the past, the bloc granted special concessions to the British, such as allowing them to keep the pound sterling during Maastricht Treaty negotiations. These concessions inspired other EU members to ask for similar treatment — most notably Denmark, which also managed to opt out of the euro.
However, this is the first time that London has openly demanded the return to a previous stage in the process of European integration. At no other time has a country tried to dissociate itself from the bloc in this way. The decision not only challenges the Franco-German view of the European Union but also makes a compromise extremely difficult and risky between France and Germany and the United Kingdom.
Most important, Cameron is framing his proposals not in terms of national sovereignty but in terms of social well-being. In doing so, he acknowledges the social implications of the European crisis. Cameron has even said that the European Union currently is hurting its citizens more than it is helping them. According to leaked portions of his upcoming speech, he believes that there is a “growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is